Editor’s Note: No one disputes the fact that Canada needs to procure new fighter jets, but that’s where universal agreement ends. Several aircraft types are vying for the title of Canada’s next fighter jet. In this ongoing series, defence analyst Richard Shimooka examines the pros and cons of each contender. First on deck: the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet.
The successor to the original F/A-18 Hornet family (of which the CF-18 is a member), Boeing’s Super Hornet has already amassed an impressive combat record in its 14-year operational history. It is by far the most proven airframe among the various contenders in the running to replace the CF-18. The F/A-18E/F was originally intended to be an interim aircraft until the development of a stealthy naval strike attack aircraft could be completed. It was an affordable, low risk aircraft based on the F/A-18A/B/C/D family of fighter jets. Development commenced in 1993, with the first prototype flying in 1996. The Super Hornet entered service in 1997, with 500+ airframes produced. It, along with its electronic warfare variant, the EA-18G Growler, forms the backbone of the US Navy’s fighter and strike capability, and has served with distinction over Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Capability and Performance
The Super Hornet offers tremendous versatility. As a mature airframe, it presents the least short-term risk to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and would make a credible contribution to any allied operation for at least the next decade. It is able to utilize nearly the entire range of American airborne weapons, including the GPS-guided joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs). Furthermore, its sensor and avionics systems are among the most advanced in the world today, due in part to its spiral development model. The Super Hornet was designed to receive continual upgrades throughout its service life, which continue to this day. Upcoming planned spirals include a new computer core, improvements to information processing systems and a pod-mounted infrared sensor.
The F/A-18E’s capabilities would offer a significant advance over the CF-18, bringing the RCAF to the forefront of current fighter technology. Also, the type offers high levels of interoperability with the United States military, which is a major advantage for its everyday operation. While the Super Hornet is available in single (E model) and twin-seat (F model) configurations, the RCAF intends to stay with single-crew fighters in order to cut down on personnel costs.
The Super Hornet does have limitations. Its aerodynamic performance is roughly comparable to its predecessor, with only small improvements on its range and endurance. For example, an F/A-18E undertaking a long-range intercept in the Canadian North would have a combat radius of 700 nautical miles (NM) based on its NATOPS flight manual, compared to 650 NM for the CF-18. Furthermore, the Super Hornet incorporates some signature reduction features, but it is not considered a stealthy aircraft. Low observable aircraft must be designed and constructed according to a series of unique principles, which the Super Hornet does not possess. It was able to implement some signature-reducing features that resulted in a significant decrease in detection ranges, but it is nowhere near comparable to the very stealthy design of Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor or F-35 Lightning II.
Financial and Industrial Considerations
According to the 2011 Selected Acquisition Report, the F/A-18E/F’s per unit reoccurring flyaway cost (basically, the cost of the aircraft with no support equipment or spares), comes to US$82.88 million (fiscal year 2012). This does not include foreign military sales, or research and development fees levied on a program of this type. Adding these costs should bring the aircraft’s per unit cost to around US$90 million. At this cost, and with the Canadian government’s hard cap of C$9 billion for the acquisition phase, the RCAF’s potential Super Hornet fleet size will be less than 65 aircraft, and perhaps as few as 55.
Furthermore, Boeing is set to wind down production around 2015, after its final delivery to the US Navy. This may be extended by a prospective Australian purchase, but the Super Hornet will likely be unavailable after 2016 or 2017. Furthermore, per-unit costs will rise once the large US orders end, since smaller production lots will shoulder the fixed overhead costs of a large manufacturing line. To avoid this scenario, the Government of Canada would need to advance its purchase of the fighter significantly ahead of schedule, and in a shorter period of time, than previously expected. This could cause operational and budget challenges, but would avoid managing obsolescence issues that surround maintaining the CF-18 fleet until 2020. According to U.S. Navy figures, the F/A-18E/F’s operational cost is similar to its own F/A-18A/C fleet, which should be roughly similar to CF-18 costs as well. This should be lower compared to most other options available to Canada.
The F/A-18E will be able to use most of the ordnance currently in Canadian stores. However, given the significant gap in development between CF-18s (which are updated F/A-18As) and the Super Hornet, only a limited level of commonality exists between the two aircraft. Thus, the RCAF’s ability to reuse its stocks of CF-18 spares and other equipment will likely be low.
During Parliamentary testimony, the Boeing Company stated that it would offer 100 per cent offsets for Canada’s procurement of the Super Hornet. However, as the program is nearing the end of its production life, it is unlikely that Canada would receive substantive contracts to produce parts for the fighter. Instead, much of the offsets would be indirect, likely involving a large proportion of purchases from Canadian component manufacturers in civil aerospace.
While the Super Hornet represents the least risk of all the potential CF-18 replacements, it also faces early obsolescence relative to the time frame envisioned. The avionics and defensive systems upgrades have maintained the aircraft’s technological edge, yet there are both financial and technical limits to this process. The United States has elected not to support a series of major upgrades proposed by Boeing, including an engine performance upgrade and a series of signature-reducing features (including a low observable weapons pod). Considering the current fiscal climate and the Department of Defense’s (DoD) support of the F-35, it is unlikely that these major upgrades will ever occur. Instead, the U.S. has only funded avionics upgrades that will ensure the F/A-18E will remain interoperable with the ongoing networking and sensor development efforts that are occurring within the United States military. This includes data fusion systems that improve a Super Hornet pilot’s awareness by networking on-board and off-board sensors. However, they will not be as advanced as those projected to be fielded on the F-35.
Furthermore, the DoD is hesitant to procure additional Super Hornets, preferring to prolong the lifespan of existing aircraft through upgrades and service life extensions. As squadrons of F-35Cs [the carrier-based variant] are deployed, the F/A-18E/Fs will be increasingly relegated to less demanding roles. That is a function of two factors. First, the US Navy predicts that technological advances in air defences will increase the Super Hornet’s vulnerabilities. Second, the aging of the Hornet fleet will result in greater restrictions imposed on airframe performance, in order to prolong its usable lifespan.
The withdrawal of the Super Hornet in the US Navy’s inventory will have a significant effect on a potential Canadian buy. It is likely the DoD will reduce funding for upgrades after 2025, as they prepare to withdraw the aircraft from service. Consequently, the Super Hornet’s combat effectiveness will deteriorate with even greater speed. While the Navy will continue to field the electronic warfare Growler variant past 2035, that platform’s focus will be different from Canada’s intended use. Thus, the situation would require the Government of Canada to fund all upgrades for several critical systems in order to keep the aircraft operationally relevant. More importantly, the requirement for such a unilateral Canadian follow-on development process would have a very significant impact on long-term sustainment costs.
This article first appeared as part of an ongoing series on the CDA Institute’s Defence and Security Blog. It is reprinted here with permission. http://cda-cdai.ca/cdai/en/blog.
Richard Shimooka is a defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Between 2007 and 2012, he was a fellow at the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen’s University, and is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Last November, he released a report on the F-35 with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute, entitled F-35 and the Future of Canadian Security. He lives in White Rock, B.C.